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A Soundtrack Fit for a King

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If “The King's Speech” makes good on its status as best-picture favorite at the Oscars on Sunday, it would become the first film in its category since “Platoon” to feature a major piece of classical music in its soundtrack.

In 1986, Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War drama famously employed Barber’s Adagio as its theme music, a work that has become a signature sound of war dramas ever since. Yet “The King’s Speech,” in the hunt for 12 Oscars, may go even further in the way it punctuates a pivotal scene with a famous classical work – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

This very prominence has fueled a growing debate on Web sites and blogs about the intent of the creators of the break-out film about a speech therapist who helps King George VI overcome his stammer enough so that he can address his nation at the outbreak of World War II.

"In a movie about the British preparing themselves for war against Hitler, surely the symphonic score should not rely on Beethoven,” wrote Glenn Young in the Huffington Post. “On the occasion of the King of England declaring war against Hitler, under what possible pretext can the filmmakers explain the score blaring the second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony?" He goes on to call the contextual use of Beethoven "cinematic treason.”

Young’s argument, echoed elsewhere online, centers on the fact that Beethoven was also a composer favored by the Nazis, performed at Hitler’s birthdays and other ceremonial events.

Other reactions have been more favorable. David Stabler, the classical music critic of the Oregonian deemed the gentle, yet powerful strains of Beethoven a perfect match. “Never mind the irony of hearing German music during a speech about going to war with Hitler,” he wrote. “The scene brims with feeling between patient and therapist, who went on to became lifelong friends.”           

The scene in question occurs some 100 minutes into the film, when the unwilling Bertie, as the King was known, has been coronated as George VI after his brother abdicated to marry an American woman, Wallis Simpson. He anxiously prepares to give the address that BBC Radio will broadcast throughout the empire, announcing Britain's entry into World War II.

Arriving in a hushed fabric-draped studio at Buckingham Palace, George steps before the dreaded microphone and manages to issue forth with a stately procession of phrases, punctuated by dramatic pauses and accompanied by the majestic strains of Beethoven's Seventh. Later, in the film’s epilogue, the King appears on the balcony before a cheering crowd as Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) is heard quietly.

Both pieces were performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Terry Davies. In a phone conversation from London, Davies explained that Tom Hooper, the film's director, initially used the Seventh Symphony as a “temp score” -- music you use as a guide in the editing stage. But Hooper became infatuated with the repeated notes in the Second Movement, which suggested a stammering of the King himself. As the five-and-half-minute selection proceeds, it grows in confidence, mirroring the King’s growing assurance as a public speaker.

"I did make the early parts particularly tenuous and uncertain and at one point the music kind of stops even,” Davies said of his interpretation. "It didn’t seem to do any musical damage."

Asked about the music’s Germanic undertones, Davies was skeptical. “I have a suspicion that it was used as great music and it has a wonderful exuberance and it fit. I don’t know that it goes any deeper than that.”

Hooper did not respond to several requests for comment.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College and music director of the American Symphony Orchestra noted that Beethoven feels appropriate given the historical ties between the British and German aristocracies. “People need to remember that the family of George VI was a German family,” he said. “They spoke German until the outbreak of the First World War. Queen Victoria was married to Prince Albert, who was a German prince. Her favorite composer was Felix Mendelssohn, who was German and Jewish. So the House of Windsor was and remains a family of German origin.”

Botstein discounted the notion that Beethoven stood as a symbol of Nazi values. “It is simply an outrageous retrospective to make him German in some way that evokes the First World War much less the Second World War,” he said. “The composer’s own political sympathies – as far as we know of them – wouldn’t have been aligned with the Nazi racism of the '30s.”

Other critics contend that Beethoven’s music is highly appropriate in its concern with epic struggle; Beethoven worked on the Seventh while he was in advanced stages of hearing loss and by the time it was premiered in 1812, he was almost entirely deaf.

Elaine Sisman, a musicologist at Columbia University, notes that the Napoleonic wars had not yet ceased in 1812, and the march tread may hint at the threat of war. "I don't think the Beethoven is about Germanic music," Sisman wrote in an e-mail. "His Fifth Symphony during World War II was known in England as 'V for Victory' (short-short-short-long) and he generally reads as universal.

"I'd say more likely as a political meaning is Beethoven's conscious attempt to make art central to human experience (following Schiller). He consciously created passages of musical expansion that create transcendence."

Still, Young, the Huffington Post writer, contends that other composers might have offered a better fit, especially Englishmen like Edward Elgar or Ralph Vaughan Williams. “To watch [the King's] heroic personal feat take place in the same film which fails to acknowledge its own musical subtext is to witness a failure to match form to content,” he argues.

To Botstein, only Wagner would have been truly inappropriate, given his noted anti-semitism. He added: “The scene needs something that's grave and has a dignity about it but isn’t a funeral ode and is not wildly cheery like the Pomp and Circumstance March. Beethoven’s Seventh fits all parts. It’s music for a coronation, for a grave speech to the nation, for a time of reflection. So it fits.”